[The following report was published by Human Rights Watch on 20 February 2014]
A Wedding That Became a Funeral: US Drone Attack on Marriage Procession in Yemen
On December 12, 2013, a United States aerial drone launched four Hellfire missiles on a convoy of 11 cars and pickup trucks during a counterterrorism operation in rural Yemen.
The strike killed at least 12 men and wounded at least 15 others, 6 of them seriously. Yemen authorities initially described all those killed in the attack outside the city of Rad`a as “terrorists.” The US government never officially acknowledged any role in the attack, but unofficially told media that the dead were militants, and that the operation targeted a “most-wanted” member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who was wounded and escaped.
Witnesses and relatives of the dead and wounded interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Yemen said the convoy was a wedding procession. They said everyone in the procession was a civilian, including all of the dead and injured, and that the bride received a superficial face wound.
After the attack, angry residents blocked a main road in Rad`a, a provincial capital in central Yemen, while displaying the bodies of those killed. Provincial authorities then unofficially acknowledged civilian casualties by providing money and assault rifles—a traditional gesture of apology—to the families of the dead and wounded.
Human Rights Watch found that the convoy was indeed a wedding procession that was bringing the bride and family members to the groom’s hometown. The procession also may have included members of AQAP, although it is not clear who they were or what was their fate. However the conflicting accounts, as well as actions of relatives and provincial authorities, suggest that some, if not all, of those killed and wounded were civilians.
This raises the possibility that the attack may have violated the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or by causing civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage.
Neither the US government nor the Yemeni government has offered specific information that those whom the eight relatives and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch listed as killed and injured were involved in militant activities.
The legality of the December 12 attack hinges on both the applicable body of international law and the facts on the ground. If international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applies to the December 12, 2013 attack, only valid military objectives such as AQAP leaders or fighters could have been lawfully targeted. The burden is on the attacker to take all feasible precautions to ensure that a target is a combatant before conducting an attack and to minimize civilian harm.
Had AQAP members deliberately joined the wedding procession to avoid attack they would have been committing the laws-of-war violation of using “human shields.” AQAP shielding would not, however, justify an indiscriminate or disproportionate attack by US forces.
The United States should carry out a prompt, impartial and transparent investigation into the attack, hold those responsible to account for any wrongdoing, and provide appropriate compensation. US officials speaking on condition of anonymity told media they are investigating the incident, but Human Rights Watch has found no evidence of an inquiry.
The December 12 attack also raises serious questions as to whether US forces are complying with the policy requirements on targeted killings that President Barack Obama outlined in May 2013. Before any such strike, the president said, the United States must have “near-certainty” that no civilians will be harmed.
In refusing to acknowledge any role in the strike, the United States has also failed to demonstrate that the alleged target was present, could not feasibly have been arrested, or posed a “continuing and imminent threat”—three other US policy requirements.
Rather than instilling confidence that its attacks are lawful and adhere to US policy, the silence of the Obama administration on strikes such as the one on the December 12 wedding procession instead magnifies the concerns. The failure to publicly acknowledge and investigate attacks causing civilian casualties not only violates the international legal obligations of the United States, it also shows an unwillingness to address the harms inflicted on Yemen’s civilian population.
[Click here to read the full report]